NEW YORK – The detectives searching for Baby Hope’s killer have been tracking down her father’s relatives for about a week and are hopeful the family members can provide more leads, a person with knowledge of the matter said Tuesday.
Investigators have been knocking on doors in the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens, checking records, visiting old addresses and talking to neighbors of the family members, the person said. The process has been slow and laborious, the person said, because some are illegal immigrants and fearful of the authorities.
Detectives had been hoping to continue working out of the public eye, but the news emerged earlier this week of a break in the long-cold case: A tip had helped detectives identify the mother of Baby Hope, the girl whose remains were found stuffed into a blue picnic cooler near the Henry Hudson Parkway in 1991 and whose identity had been a mystery until recent days.
Based on interviews with the girl’s mother, sisters and other relatives, detectives are beginning to piece together a timeline of Baby Hope’s short life, though many elements of the history are still being confirmed. Her father was an immigrant from Mexico and had lived in Queens at some point, according to a second person with knowledge of the case. The family had at least three daughters. At some point, the parents split. Against the mother’s will, the father took Baby Hope with him; along with a younger sister, Baby Hope lived in her father’s residence for several months before she was found dead, the second person said.
Detectives believe that the father had been living with several relatives at the time, the official said. The father may still be in the city, the person said.
The tip that jump-started the investigation came over the summer, around the time the police were handing out fliers, tacking up posters and sending a van equipped with loudspeakers through the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan in an effort to generate leads in the decades-old case. A woman phoned the police to recount a long-ago conversation in which another woman spoke of a young relative who had been murdered. There were similarities to the Baby Hope case, and detectives tracked down the woman whose relative had been slain. That led detectives to Baby Hope’s mother. They obtained an envelope that the mother had apparently licked to seal, yielding a DNA profile, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
When scientists with the medical examiner’s office conducted an analysis of that DNA profile and one taken from Baby Hope’s remains, they discovered a link, according to the office.
For years, it had pained detectives that no relative had come forward to claim Baby Hope, who was between the ages of 4 and 5. Many people in Washington Heights shared that pain. They said prayers for her, told their children about her, and wondered what she would have been like if she had lived.
The police have not yet revealed Baby Hope’s name. Nor has her death certificate been amended to include it.
“We have to know who that girl was, because we don’t know,” said Andrea Arias, 65, a retired home health aide in Washington Heights who said she has remembered Baby Hope in her prayers year after year. “I am very curious.”
The Church of St. Elizabeth held a funeral Mass in 1993 to remember Baby Hope. Hundreds of people turned out to mourn her, including Arias. On Tuesday, the day that the police said they had identified the girl, the senior center inside the church hummed with the news that there had been a break in the case. One woman excitedly told her friends in Spanish, “They found them.”
“Things like that, you don’t forget because it’s very hard,” Iris Rodriguez, 78, a retired hairdresser and mother of three who has lived in Washington Heights since 1977, said Tuesday. “After 9/11, I cried the whole month. After that little girl, a lot of mothers cried.”
Rodriguez added it was time for Baby Hope to get justice. “Whoever did that to this child, they have to pay for it,” she said.
Arias, who was at the senior center, said that after she heard about the girl in the cooler, she could not stop thinking about her. “At that time, you didn’t see things like that,” she said. “You think a lot of things. You think, who killed her? Why? So many questions.”
Arias said she became more vigilant about her own young son and daughter. She would not allow them to walk on the street alone, she said. For years afterward, whenever she would see friends who had moved away, the case would come up again. “Always we say they never found them,” she said.
Outside the church, mothers pushed baby strollers and fathers tugged their toddlers along. The neighborhood, which was once plagued with street crime and drugs, has been transformed in recent years with many young families moving in for the relatively affordable apartments.
Although some of the newcomers know little of Baby Hope’s story, the case has been passed along as a cautionary tale to others who were not around in 1991.
Melissa Colon, 13, who grew up in Washington Heights, said that her parents and older brother had told her for years that something bad happened to Baby Hope and that she should be careful when walking by herself. “It shocked me because there’s usually nothing going on around here,” she said.
Around the block from St. Elizabeth, Milagros Hernandez, 67, a retired home attendant who was walking her dog, said that she relived the case all over again when she saw the police sketch of the girl in the news.
“It’s something that touched my heart,” she said. “That baby could now be at a university if someone hadn’t taken her life.”